Book Summary: Use storytelling elements for compelling marketing.

Building a StoryBrand book cover

Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen

by Donald Miller

Most marketing messages are just noise. Our brains tune them out—they’re too complex, and there are too many.

The solution is crafting messages that are keyed to what the human brain loves, which are stories. In particular, stories that will help us survive and thrive. Over the eons, our brains have developed to look for stories. Stories cut through the clutter and get our attention.

That’s the premise of Building a StoryBrand. It shows you how to tap the power of story to cut through the noise.

Author Donald Miller walks us through creating a “brand script,” a tool to filter your marketing messages so they’ll be more effective. Framed using the elements of storytelling, the brand script is one page with seven concise messages that lead a customer from problem to solution to success. It’s a foundation piece for all of your marketing. When you get the brand script in place, the rest of your marketing comes together easily.

The book is organized into three parts. Part one, Why Most Marketing Is a Money Pit, explores the current problems with marketing and introduces the brand script. Part 2, Building Your StoryBrand, walks you through the seven elements of building a brand script step-by-step. The third part covers implementing the brand script, including a practical set of steps for building a better website and a five-second test for all your marketing. Plus, there’s a section on using the brand script to energize and transform your organization.

Miller is a New York Times best-selling author. His recent books include Marketing Made Simple and Business Made Simple. He’s the CEO of the StoryBrand company based in Nashville, which provides workshops and certifies marketing consultants on the StoryBrand tools.

This summary reflects my takeaways from a useful book I recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy from your favorite bookseller. Here are the Amazon links: eBook | Audiobook | Print 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes should be attributed to the book’s author.


Most marketing messages don’t work because…

  • They’re too complicated. We try to stuff in too many messages. Customers have to think too hard. Stories arrange things in a way that’s easier for the brain to understand. Our brains readily grasp and make sense of stories.
  • They focus on the wrong things. Survival is at the center of every great story, whether physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual “survival.” Stories that help people survive and thrive get attention.
  • It’s too hard to understand what we’re selling. We clutter up our marketing with things we care about, but our customer doesn’t. The customer just wants to know, will this product or service solve my problem and improve my life?

A lot of marketing is just noise. It’s a bunch of “clutter and confusion.” The solution is story—framing our messages using the elements of great storytelling.

People pay attention to stories because they organize information in a way that the human brain finds appealing. It’s similar to the distinction between noise and music. Both involve sound waves, but noise is random sound, whereas music is organized sound that entices the brain to listen.

With stories, our brains don’t have to think so hard. A story framework creates an underlying map that makes it easier for customers to connect with our products and services.

These seven elements are the essence of every story:

  1. There’s a character (would-be hero) who wants something.
  2. On their way to getting it, they encounter a problem. Something or someone is standing in their way. 
  3. In their despair, the character meets a guide.
  4. The guide gives the character a plan.
  5. And the guide calls the character to action.
  6. By taking action, the character avoids failure.
  7. And the story ends in success.

Story formulas put everything in order so the brain doesn’t have to work to understand what’s going on.

Building Your Brand Script

1. There’s a character who wants something.

Principle One: Your customer is the hero, not you or your brand.

Most stories revolve around a hero’s quest to get something they want. In the brand script, the hero is your customer, not you, your service, or your brand. The quest can begin when we get clear about who’s the hero and help our hero identify what they want.

When we clarify what our customer wants, we bring that desire into sharp focus, which gives the story direction — our direction. The customer’s question shifts from “what do I want” to “can this brand help me get it?”

Defining what the customer wants opens a “story gap,” a gap between them and what they want. Story gaps create desire. The openings and closings of story gaps are the driving force behind much of human behavior.

Focus on one strong desire. A single desire creates an attractive hook for the story you’re inviting your customer to join. Adding more desires creates conflicting story gaps, which leads to confusion.

Concentrate on a desire that’s essential to “survival.” The brain’s primary responsibility is to keep us safe, healthy, happy, and strong. It will always choose the story that helps us survive and thrive.

Define a desire for your customer, and the story you’re inviting customers into will have a powerful hook.

2. The character has a problem — something or someone is standing in their way.

Principle Two: Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems,
but customers buy solutions to internal problems.

Discussing our customers’ problems deepens their interest in what we offer. The more we talk about our customer’s problems, the more interest we gain.

Your story needs a villain. A villain serves as a focal point for a problem or conflict. When we frame our products and services as tools that can help them defeat a villain, people are more likely to listen. In this context, a villain is a personification of your customer’s problem. It doesn’t have to be a person, but it’s more relatable if it exhibits human characteristics.

Four traits of a good villain:

  1. Must be root cause of the problem, not a symptom.
  2. Must be recognizable and relatable..
  3. Singular. One is enough. More will confuse.
  4. Must be “real.”

Three levels of problems. People encounter three levels of problems in their daily lives: externalinternal, and philosophical.

  1. External problems: Stories often have an external, physical problem that the hero must overcome to succeed. But the purpose of an external problem is to point to an internal problem.
  2. Internal problems involve how the customer feels, such as frustrated, intimidated, confused, and so forth. Too often, we offer solutions to external problems, but what customers want are solutions to their internal problems.
  3. Philosophical problems are about something more profound than the story; there’s a larger question, “why does this matter?” “Ought” and “should” are frequently used when discussing philosophical problems. When problems at this level are resolved, customers experience a more profound sense of meaning.

People want to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Customers experience a more profound sense of meaning when a brand involves them in a larger story and allows them to have a say. Look for something unfair or unjust in their situation and how your products and services can solve that.

A great brand promise resolves all three levels of problems. This engages customers on a primal level by addressing both their surface-level concerns and their deepest needs. We excel when we position our products and services as a solution to all three levels, and doing business with us is what customers should do to bring their stories to a close.

Keep the message simple:

  • Who or what is the villain?
  • What external problem is the villain causing?
  • How is that external problem making the customer feel?
  • What’s unfair about the situation?

…people’s internal desire to resolve a frustration is a greater motivator than their desire to solve an external problem… it’s those frustrations that are motivating them to call you

3. The character meets a guide.

Principle Three: Customers aren’t looking for another hero; they’re looking for a guide.

Every one of us views the world through a protagonist’s eyes. The world revolves around us despite how charitable, generous, and selfless we may be. This universal truth applies to our customers.

If we position ourselves as the hero, we unwittingly compete with our customers. In contrast, we can become trusted resources when we position our customers as the heroes and ourselves as guides.

To be seen as a guide, we must communicate empathy and authority. These are the two fundamental characteristics.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. After we identify our customers’ internal problems, we need to let them know we understand and want to help them find a solution. But your customers won’t know you care unless you tell them.

Empathy is easy to communicate. You’re empathizing when you genuinely use phrases such as, “We understand how you feel…” or “No one should endure…” or “Like you, we are frustrated by….”

Empathizing with our customers’ dilemmas creates bonds of trust. People trust brands that understand and empathize with them.

Commonalities are powerful marketing tools. Customers fill in a lot of blanks with trust when they realize they share things in common with you or your brand.

Authority is about competence. In searching for a guide, a hero looks for someone who knows what they’re doing. The guide needn’t be perfect but they must have helped other heroes triumph.

Four ways to add authority to your marketing:

  1. Testimonials: Let customers or others talk for you.
  2. Numbers: How many customers have you helped? 
  3. Awards: Awards can help build trust, even if customers don’t recognize the award. 
  4. Logos: Displaying the logos of other businesses you’ve worked with provides social proof.

Real empathy means letting customers know we see them as we see ourselves. Scan your marketing material and make sure you’ve told your customers that you care.

4. The guide gives the character a plan.

Principle Four: Customers trust a guide who has a plan.

The plan provides the hero with a path that leads to resolving their troubles. In sales, by pointing out the stones our customers can walk on to cross the creek we remove risk and increase their comfort level in taking action—making a purchase.

Unless we guide them, they’ll get confused and use that confusion as an excuse not to buy. While evident to us, the steps may not be so apparent to our customers.

The plan should do one of two things: (1) clarify how to do business with us (a process plan) or (2) remove the risk involved in making the purchase (an agreement plan).

The Process Plan

There are three types of process plans:

  1. A pre-purchase plan describes—in simple terms—the steps involved in making a purchase. It clears up any confusion about how to buy.
  2. A post-purchase plan describes how to use and enjoy the product or service after the purchase. It addresses a customer’s concerns about how to use the product or service effectively.
  3. A combination pre- and post-purchases plan. A plan that covers both.

Process plans should have between three to six steps — four might be ideal. If doing business with you takes more than six steps, divide the steps into phases and describe each phase.

The Agreement Plan

An agreement plan is a list of promises you make to your customers that calm fears. They help customers overcome their fear of doing business with you. An agreement plan works in the background. It’s there to provide assurance and ease or eliminate risk.

To create an agreement plan, list the things your customer might be worried about regarding your product or service. Make agreements to ease those concerns.

Give your plan a title. Once you’ve made your process or agreement plan (or both), give it a name. Naming it will increase the value of your product or service.

[M]aking a purchase isn’t a characteristic of a casual relationship; it’s a characteristic of a commitment.

5. The guide calls the character to action.

Principle Five: Customers do not take action unless they are challenged to take action.

Customers, like characters in stories, don’t act on their own. They must be challenged. Similarly, customers don’t make big decisions unless they’re prompted. 

Two types of calls to action:

  1. A direct call to action is a direct request such as “buy now,” “schedule an appointment,” or “call today.” It leads to a sale.
  2. A transitional call to action is less risky and usually offers a free product or service as a relationship on-ramp toward a purchase later.

A good transitional call to action will…

  1. Claim territory. To become known as the leader in your area, stake a claim.
  2. Generate reciprocity. All relationships are give-and-take; if you give something to your customers, they’re likely to give back to you in the future.
  3. Position you as the guide. Even if it’s for free, helping your customers solve their problems positions you as a guide.

Having clear calls to action means customers aren’t confused about the actions they need to take to do business with you.

6. The character avoids failure.

Principle Six: Every human being is trying to avoid a tragic ending.

A story’s fate depends on one question: What are the stakes? Unless there is something to gain or lose, nobody cares. We haven’t made the story interesting if we don’t define the stakes. No stakes mean no story.

Every customer has a “so-what” question. If you don’t tell your customers what might happen if they don’t buy, you’ve failed to answer every customer’s unspoken question: “so what?” Show people the cost of not doing business with you. Let your customers know what’s at stake for them.

Avoiding loss is a more significant motivator than potential gains. People are 2 to 3 times more likely to make a change to avoid a loss than to make a change to gain something. Identify the negative consequences that your products or services help customers avoid.

Fear is salt in the recipe. Just a pinch will do.

7. The story ends with success.

Principle Seven: Never assume people understand how your brand can change their lives.
Tell them.

People want to be taken somewhere. If we don’t tell our customers where we’re taking them, they’ll go with another brand. Your messaging strategy should show a vision of life when your products or services are used. A story must have a destination.

Make the ending clear and to the point. We need to paint a clear picture of the future for our customers. No one gets excited about a blurry vision. Good stories aren’t vague; they are about specific things that happen to specific people. And they have a clear ending with a clear picture of success.

Use a before and after grid to plot your customer’s transformation. Success could simply be a list of resolutions to your customers’ problems. But people’s problems often stem from something more profound, such as status, self-realization, self-acceptance, and transcendence. A before and after grid can help you identify and illustrate these deeper implications.

 Before Your Product/ServiceAfter Your Product/Service
What they have or are able to do:  
How they feel:
Their status or standing:
Their day-to-day life or work:
The book has a version of this grid by Ryan Deiss of Digital Marketer. Adapted from

We must repeatedly show how our product or service can improve their life. Customers won’t follow us if we don’t remind them where we’re going.

Start with simple. Basic answers often work best.

The day we stop losing sleep over the success of our business and start losing sleep over the success of our customers is the day our business will start growing again.

Put Your Brand Script to Work

Define your customer’s aspirational identity

Everyone wants to change something about themselves. They aspire to be someone different, someone better, or maybe just someone more accepting of themselves.

Smart brands define aspirational identities that they invite customers to step into. What kind of person does your customer aspire to become? How would they like their friends to talk about them?

Create a one-liner

A one-liner is a highly distilled version of your brand script. It can be a short statement rather than a single sentence, but it must convey four ideas: 

  1. The Character. Your one-liner should make the people you want as customers say, “That’s me!”
  2. The Problem. Define the problem, which opens a story loop so your would-be customers look to you to help them find a solution. 
  3. The Plan. You can’t say everything about your plan in a one-liner, but you have to give a hint. 
  4. The Success. Describe what customers’ lives might be like if they use your product or service. 

Keep refining your one-liner until it works.

How to use your one-liner:

  • Memorize it as though you’re an actor rehearsing your most crucial line. Have your team do the same.
  • Make it part of your website and all of your marketing collaterals.
  • Use it repeatedly. You need to repeat your one-liner over and over and over again until even your customers begin to repeat it to their friends.

[Below is an example of a one-liner from the StoryBrand podcast that I’m sure just about every routine listener can quote from memory because it’s been repeated so often. –DT]

If you confuse, you’ll lose. Noise is the enemy. And the best way to grow your business is to clarify your message so customers will listen.

Check your website

A website should include these things:

  1. An offer that appears above the fold (visible without scrolling down) using images and text that meets these criteria:
    • Communicates an aspirational identity.
    • Promises to solve a problem.
    • States precisely what you do.
  2. A clear call to action.
  3. An image of success. Showing happy customers is an easy way to convey feelings of health, well-being, and satisfaction.
  4. Clearly define what your company offers and provide clear directions on where people should go if you have multiple divisions, businesses, or product lines.
  5. Very few words. People scan websites rather than read them. Dense text is going to get skipped. 

Make sure your website passes the five-second test. Looking at your website (or other marketing materials), can anyone tell within five seconds:

  1. What do you offer?
  2. How will improve my life?
  3. How to buy it?

Use your brand script to align your organization

Is there a narrative void in your organization? A narrative void is “a vacant space that occurs inside the organization when there’s no story to keep everyone aligned.” Employee disengagement has been an epidemic. The information explosion is partly to blame for the rise, but the narrative void may be a much bigger culprit. 

A mission statement isn’t enough to fill the void. You need a story. Organizations whose activities revolve around a shared story aren’t just stating their mission; they’re on a mission. They are living their mission.

A mission statement isn’t a story. It’s like reading the map instead of going on the trip. One is getting oriented. The other is living the journey.

A true mission isn’t a statement; it’s a way of life. You reinforce a mission through every strategy, every operational detail, and every customer experience. That is what it means to be a mission-driven organization.

Your business and your team can be transformed. Your business can take on new meaning by participating in your customer’s transformation. And your team will find greater meaning in their work when they realize that rather than just selling products, they’re empowering people to believe in themselves.

The guide role is more than a marketing strategy; it’s “a position of the heart.” When a company commits itself to its customers’ journeys, solving their external, internal, and philosophical problems, they’re doing more than selling products; they’re changing lives.

Just because you know the story doesn’t mean your team does. Where there’s no story, there’s no engagement.

Book details and where to buy it:

Get the book on Amazon: eBook | Audiobook | Print (affiliate links*)
Amazon rating: 4.7/5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.3/5 stars 
Page count: 240
Publication date: Oct. 10, 2017
Author website: 

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